As easy as it would be to pair Korn’s The Nothing with Slipknot’s We Are Not Your Kind among 2019’s significant releases as two bands who’ve transcended their nu-metal roots to become straight-up metal heroes, it also wouldn’t be totally accurate. Sure, it is for Slipknot, but Korn have always maintained a kinship with nu-metal in their sound, even among their waning periods or dalliances with other styles and sounds, mostly because they’ve kept in touch with the genre’s ethos of stripping back metal’s theatrics to reveal a more angsty, confessional side, and they’ve always been believable when doing it. That’s in no small part down to Jonathan Davis, who, particularly in their early days, has the ability to channel years of childhood abuse and bullying and project his resultant twisted psyche into performances that have a lot more humanity to them than an average nu-metal chancer who’d look to scrape by on blunt aggro and machismo alone. Granted, that psychological pummeling hasn’t been brought up as regularly in recent material, but The Nothing arrives under the most tangible weight to afflict Davis in some time, namely the death of his wife Deven last year.
In fact, it’s that particular context that gives The Nothing the necessary leverage to put over the top from being yet another perfectly solid Korn album, to one that’s firmly in the range of good, purely through the emotional grounding that Davis is put in that’s much more impactful. Obviously the band are still more than capable of holding their own, and on all fronts it’s perfectly clear just how experienced Korn are at giving their traditional nu-metal sound a modern coat of gloss, but The Nothing is primarily Davis’ vehicle through and through, and he’s able to do a lot with it. It’s maybe not as dark as some have already attested, and certainly not to the level of their earliest work, but it hits the spot of Korn’s neurosis-digging more forcefully than they have in some time.
And again, context helps here, mostly because divorced from it, it’s easy to paint The Nothing as a pretty standard Korn album, trawling through more of Davis’ dark thoughts without all that much to attach them to. It’s not like that’s never the case, especially when Can You Hear Me has its roots tracing all the way back to 2015, but bookending the album with The End Begins and Surrender To Failure highlights the voracity of Davis’ distress, left alone as a single father to succumb to his own demons to taunt him and tell him that he’s failed as a husband. It strips away the mawkishness of the crying on The End Begins or explosion of rage at the end of You’ll Never Find Me, instead making them feel more human and justified in an album that’s all about showing that grief and learning to cope with it. Subsequently, it lends detail to what could otherwise fall into more nebulous thematic territory, like the outburst of “God is making fun of me” on Idiosyncrasy that’s just as curdled as this mingling of fury and grief should be, or The Ringmaster’s confrontation of malicious inner thoughts that want to feed on those negative emotions and exacerbate them. As far as showcasing just how broken Davis is, The Nothing remains at a fairly high quality all the way through, hitting levels of universality that are fairly par for the course for a mainstream metal band, but still finding space to hit those peaks of self-destruction and dread, particularly on a track like The Seduction Of Indulgence, that’s incredibly well-balanced.
Even though Korn aren’t necessarily pushing the boat out, they’re still able to feel vital here, similar to the instrumentation albeit to a lesser extent. It’s a very familiar sound that this album is going for, in that it’s essentially what Korn have been doing for the best part of their 2010s output, namely taking a recognisable nu-metal foundation and removing a lot of the grease and grime that characterised their earlier work for an almost industrial sheen. Admittedly it does get repetitive here, especially when the window of opportunity to experiment with it is disappointingly narrow here, but as far as the stock Korn sound goes, The Nothing is another perfectly fine example of how it can work. There’s the odd foray into a Slipknot-esque heaviness like on Cold, or the slightly disjointed but nonetheless interesting beatboxing interlude on The Ringmaster, but otherwise, this is Korn as they’ve been for a long time now, and they’re still capable of dishing out the goods with precision and power. The guitars from Munky and Head still bring a pummelling low-end that’s so easy to ride on with a track like H@Rd3r, and the sense of presence and smoothness in which it’s presented really elevates the changing nature of The Darkness Is Revealing and Finally Free for something a lot more fluid. And of course, Davis remains an inimitable vocalist, spitting and cackling with suitably demonic sensibility, but also knowing when to ease it back for more melodic contributions like on This Loss. It’s hardly anything original for Korn, and really, you’d be hard-pressed to find all that much new in here at all, but if nothing else, The Nothing shows how rock-solid this band have become at grasping a style so distinct to them.
In other words, it’s a Korn album, but it’s also a really fine example of how they’re a band that can get away with not evolving all that much between releases, and still managing to succeed. Sure, it takes a rather rough chunk out of the overall longevity, but The Nothing has a depth that does a whole lot more for it, and as far as late-period Korn albums go, this is easily one of the more memorable and potent. The blend of textual and subtextual emotions is done well from start to end, and though it’s not hitting those peaks of catharsis that were so enthralling on their debut or Follow The Leader, for the band that Korn are now, The Nothing is about as good as this sort of deeply personal expulsion gets. As of now, it’s by no means a classic-in-the-making, especially among the catalogue of one of the most pivotal acts in nu-metal, but the level of quality that’s been maintained is nothing to sniff at, and the human experience within makes it hit just that bit harder.
For fans of: Stone Sour, Rob Zombie, Mudvayne
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘The Nothing’ by Korn is out now on Roadrunner Records / Elektra Records.